The national debt is out of control. Some people used to be pretty upset about that, and politicians have tried to make an issue out of it. But most people don’t get that worked up about it. Both parties have now realized that, and they’ve both promised to not reform entitlements, which are the drivers of the debt. So the debt keeps going up and the few budget hawks that are still around are left wondering, “Why is nobody else upset about this?”
It’s an interesting question, one that people interested in politics ask themselves fairly regularly. The same things don’t upset everyone. Many libertarians get very upset about the very real injustices that result from occupational licensing. Occupational licensing reform is fairly bipartisan, and many regulations (1,000 hours of training to be a hair stylist, for example) are indefensible barriers to entry that hurt the people they purportedly help. Most people see that when it’s explained to them. But it’s hard to whip up a frenzy about occupational-licensing reform because although most people agree, they also don’t really care that much.
On issues like the debt and occupational licensing, there’s a straightforward explanation: They’re problems that affect other people. The debt affects future people, our older selves and people who haven’t been born yet. Occupational licensing affects people who want to enter specific industries, groups of people too small to make a majority on their own. (The people who already have licenses don’t support reform, in many cases, because they benefit personally from the status quo.) People tend to get more worked up about issues that directly affect them.
That’s not to call those people selfish. Most people don’t follow politics for a living, and they don’t care much about the details of specific policy issues. There’s nothing wrong with that. People have finite bandwidths to care about issues, so it makes sense to care first about issues that directly affect them. It’s a form of minding your own business, something we could probably use a bit more of these days.
Yet there’s one issue that directly affects just about everyone that very few people get upset about: Construction projects taking forever.
Of course, people get upset about them when they’re sitting in traffic. But they don’t get upset about them at the polls. It’s rare to see a politician running for office making an issue out of construction that never ends.
Unlike other issues, such as unemployment or gas prices, the government actually has control over construction projects on infrastructure that it owns and operates. There are actually few things the government has more control over. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of policy ideas circulating to fix these problems. Brian Riedl, for example, wrote a sketch of a four-point conservative plan for NR back in April.
Finishing construction projects faster would make people’s everyday lives better in ways that most political issues don’t. Even taxation, the fundamental issue that everyone cares about, doesn’t make your commute miserable every single day.
In developing countries, construction projects are a major political issue. The Indian transportation minister has made a promise to build 100 kilometers of highway per day. That’s a longshot, and the Indian government’s M.O. is overpromising and underdelivering. But India did actually build 37 kilometers of brand new highway per day last year. They set a world record by laying 2,580 meters of four-lane highway in 24 hours. It’s probably much easier to build fast at Indian standards, and Americans should expect better quality for their highways. But the wealthiest country on the face of the earth should be able to build better highways at least half as fast as India.
It’s a national disgrace that a rail tunnel that took two years to build in the 1870s will take up to twelve years to replace today. There are children entering kindergarten this coming school year who were not yet born the last time one 22-mile segment of I-66 in Northern Virginia wasn’t under construction. To add insult to injury, these marathon projects are overpriced to begin with and often come in over budget. So not only are they making it harder for you to get around for years, they’re also wasting your money.
It says something about the American people that we find time to get outraged over any number of social media-fueled controversies that rarely last longer than 48 hours, yet we are generally complacent about our government making travel unnecessarily difficult for years at a time. This country used to be able to pull off marvels of engineering in less time than it takes to repair one stretch of highway today. Our gross infrastructure inefficiency is a sign of national decline, and if Americans continue to be complacent about it, it will not be reversed.